Miles from Nowhere
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When Joon was just eight years old her parents fled Korea for the grit of 1980s Bronx, New York. But after a few years in the United States, as Joon teeters on the brink of adolescence, her parents’ marriage crumbles under the weight of her father’s infidelity; he has left the family, and mental illness has rendered her mother nearly catatonic. Left with her mother’s unbearable silence as her only company, Joon, at the age of thirteen, strikes out on her own.
The next five years in Joon’s life offer a harrowing tour of a life lived on society’s margins as she moves from a homeless shelter to an escort club, through struggles with addiction, to jobs selling newspapers and cosmetics, committing petty crimes, and finally toward something resembling hope. It’s the story of a young woman who is at once tough and vulnerable, world-weary and naive, faced with insurmountable odds and yet fiercely determined to survive.
Rendered in spare but deeply evocative prose, Miles from Nowhere is an unforgettable debut from award-winning writer Nami Mun. A raw and blisteringly honest tale of surviving on ones own terms, it overflows with rare moments of beauty, moments that speak to the heart of the human experience.
Nami Mun was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up there and in Bronx, New York. She has worked as an Avon Lady, an activities coordinator for a nursing home, a photojournalist, and a criminal investigator. After earning her GED, she graduated from UC Berkeley, and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. A recipient of a Pushcart Prize, she has published in numerous journals including the 2007 Pushcart Prize anthology, The Iowa Review, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Witness, and other journals. She currently lives in Chicago.
Q. Your novel has many autobiographical elements. Like Joon, your main character, you're a Korean–American from New York City who was a teenage runaway, a dance hostess, and an Avon Lady who sold cosmetics door to door. Joon is also at times a drug addict, a sex worker, and a petty criminal. How closely is Joon's story based on your own?
Not very. If I had to put it in numbers, I'd say maybe one percent of the book is autobiographical. Yes, I left home at a young age but I chose not to write about the actual events of my own life as a runaway. I kept those actual events in a "reserve" of sorts and used my knowledge of them to strengthen the narrative artifice I was creating.
Take the chapter "Avon" for example, in which Joon sells cosmetics door–to–door. I once had a job selling jewelry out of a briefcase door to door. I think I was maybe fourteen or fifteen then. I would walk down streets and enter businesses and do my best to get someone, anyone, to buy a gold necklace or what have you from me. One place I went into was a Chinese restaurant. It was completely empty of customers, so I walked to the back, into the kitchen, and mimed and gestured my sales pitch to a staff of Chinese men who spoke little English. I held a necklace out for them to see. One of them took it from my hand, looked at it closely, and without much warning, tossed it into a sizzling wok. I was stunned. The man said to me, "Fake? Turn green," again and again, while stir–frying the necklace with these very long chopsticks. They all stood around the stove and watched the oil bubble, and I think I prayed to every god I knew back then, begging for that necklace to stay gold. After about a minute or so, the man plucked the necklace out, studied it again, and said words to his co–workers, who nodded in agreement. Luckily, for me, it didn't turn green.
I'm pretty sure it was my one and only sale, but when that man paid me money, I remember feeling proud of myself for having rolled with the punches—for having kept my cool about the stir–frying thing. For a split second I thought I could make it. That even though I had a few things stacked against me, I could work and make money and eventually make it off the streets
That was a really good day, and that moment has stayed near me for decades. But I didn't write about it in the book. Instead I contained the moment and wrote completely fictional events and dialogue to better explore and express just how complex a feeling like pride and hope can be for someone who's on the verge hopelessness as Joon is in "Avon." Incidentally, I also didn't write about actual events that occurred while I sold Avon door to door either. Basically, my approach to this material was inspired by Hemingway's iceberg principle: for every part of the iceberg we see, seven–eighths of it is underwater, strengthening the iceberg.
Q. How did you research those aspects of your story that you weren't familiar with personally?
I watched numerous documentaries that dealt with submerged population groups, the more well–known ones being Children Underground, Streetwise, and Dark Days. I also read essays and articles, not just about runaways and throwaways, but about other underground groups, such as squatters, sex workers, dance hostesses, girls and women in detention, and drug dealers, etc., as well as issues, such as child abuse, drug abuse, suicide rate amongst runaways, violence within male sex workers, and the criminal court system of New York City, etc.
Q. Other jobs you've held include photographer, waitress, bartender, administrative assistant, and copy writer. After completing your undergraduate studies at University of California at Berkeley, you, at the age of thirty, decided to work as criminal investigator. How did you find yourself in that line of work?
An acquaintance recommended me for the position. I loved that job almost immediately. I can't say why exactly except that it scratched a certain itch inside my brain. On an average day, I got to interact with diverse groups of people: dealers, gang members, sheriffs, attorneys, heroin addicts, store owners, inmates, barbers, etc. and I got to hear all of their voices. I loved tracking down witnesses and conducting interviews in unusual locations. I loved getting bits of information about people and trying to create portraits from them, or gathering fractured eyewitness accounts of an incident and attempting to envision a fuller picture. And I loved reading all the documents (police reports, medical examiner's report, witness statements, etc.), analyzing the evidence, and re–envisioning all that went down before, during, and after the criminal incident. Come to think of it, what I loved about investigations isn't so different from what I love about writing, which is to close the eyes and clearly see scenes with dialogue, action, and setting that might reveal something much deeper about the people at stake.
Q. You once had an encounter on the New York City subway that had an impact on your writing. Did you know back then that you wanted to be a writer? Was becoming a writer a lifelong ambition for you?
No, writing has not been a life–long ambition, but I can say that, for as long as I can remember, I've always had an intense desire to connect with people. That's what writing and reading is, for me—a chance to quietly, secretly share a moment with someone. I didn't start writing seriously until 2000, when I began this book, but I learned about the power of writing some years ago. During my runaway years, I kept a journal. I'd write down the events of that day, mostly while riding the subways. Once I sat next to a woman, and I could tell she was reading over my shoulder. I'd write a sentence and she'd make tiny sounds—of either disapproval or dismay. The more I wrote, the louder and more demonstrative she became, saying things outright sometimes and shaking her head. What I remember most is how she never addressed me directly. I don't think she even saw me, really. Her eyes stayed on my journal and I got the sense that even if I didn't exist in her world, my words could.At some point in my late teens, when I began trying to live a "normal" life (a real job, a real home, etc.) I decided to destroy all of the journals. To put it succinctly, I didn't want anyone to know my past. Including me, perhaps. Decades later, when I started this book, I regretted having destroyed my journals, but truthfully, I think not having a factual record of my past is what compelled me, maybe even forced me, to recreate it as fiction.
Q. Were you surprised by the success of your work – the stories you've published, all the prizes and recognition you've won, and now having your novel published?
I'm always surprised when anything good happens to me. I'm also surprised when bad things happen too. I guess that means I'm easily surprised. Getting my stories published was amazing. Getting the Pushcart Prize was a little too amazing. When I received the news over the phone, I made the person on the other end repeat the news maybe three times because the information just refused to sink in. When I heard about the book sale, I'm pretty sure all of the major organs in my body stopped running.
Q. Why did you choose Miles from Nowhere for a title?
A writer friend of mine told me, after having read one of my stories, that she had no idea that kids from New York could simply run away to another borough and never be found. I thought about this, how runaways could exist in New York and yet not exist. How they could be so close to their homes, geographically, and yet be so far removed. How New York is a city of Everything, and yet you can get lost within it and feel as though you're living in complete desolation. So there's Joon: so close to home and surrounded by everything, and yet she's completely lost and miles from where she needs to be. The title's also a song by Cat Stevens, whom I quote in the book.
Q. Among other things, your book is a story of sheer survival by a character the reader comes to know intimately and care for deeply. Can it also be seen as a coming of age novel, a quest narrative, or an adventure of sorts?
Because of how Joon develops and matures throughout the book, I could see how one might think of Miles as a coming of age novel. That said, I'm not sure if I'd recommend it to too many adolescents. And I suppose Miles could also be a quest narrative because Joon does begin a journey to find a better life, but the terms "quest narrative" and "adventure" makes me think of books like Lord of the Rings or Don Quixote, both of which differ greatly from my book. For example, my book doesn't have wizards or elves, and very little chivalry, unfortunately.
Q. Some very well–regarded writers have already praised your work highly. Janet Fitch, the author of White Oleander, wrote, "Suspenseful, funny, painful, and poetic, Nami Mun's debut shows a talent for close observation and a prose which fills the grit of street life with flashes of gold." Peter Ho Davies, the author of The Welsh Girl, called it "a starkly beautiful book, shot through with grace and lit by an off–hand street poetry." Who are your favorite authors? Which writers inspire you?
Recently my creative writing students asked me to give them a top–ten list of my favorite books. I can't seem to narrow it down to any fewer than 67. If that doesn't prove my inability to pick favorites, I don't know what does. But…here is just a sample of writers I admire, in no particular order: Hemingway, Kafka, Chekhov, Bowles, Flaubert, Melville, Nathanael West, Hubert Selby Jr., Robert Stone, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson, Jayne Anne Phillips, James Ellroy, Richard Price, William T. Vollmann…
Q. You were born in South Korea and raised there and in the Bronx. In your novel, Joon's parents are broken by their experience as immigrants, although in different ways. Joon, on the other hand, undergoes a quintessentially American experience as a runaway. To what extent do you view this novel as an immigrant's story or part of "immigrant literature"?
To me, the mother's story and Joon's story share an important connection; they're both about leaving behind a home in search for something better. Joon, like her mother, tries to stay afloat in her new surroundings—amongst new people, new rules, new temptations. The language Joon hears on the streets differs from the language at home, and even representations of God and religion are somewhat foreign to her. So, yes, the parents and Joon are immigrants in the strict sense of the word, but to categorize this book as "immigrant literature" based on the characters' circumstances alone might be slightly misleading because the majority of the narrative focuses on Joon experiencing a kind of alienation that, I think, a lot of people feel, no matter their country of origin.
Q. For much of the novel, Joon is quite passive – letting others have their way because it's easier, overly involving herself in others' lives rather than her own, and accepting, even craving, repeated failure because it's what she has come to know. What changes her consciousness and begins to turn her life around?
A series of things compel Joon to turn her life around, and every single one of them, to me, seems valid. Finding herself in jail, learning about her mother's death, seeing Tati land in prison for murder, witnessing Benny's downward spiral, and hearing about the fates of both Knowledge and Wink—all of these things accumulate within Joon, and over time, she begins to understand that she needs act—to do something to change the course of her path if she doesn't want to end up like them. Ironically, her first act of true commitment to herself—true pro–activity (if that's even a word)—is to sit still and not leave Mr. Flukinjer's office.
So, in "At the Employment Agency," she forges a new path. This path leads to Mr. Flukinjer giving her a hug, and this hug gives her that all–important push toward a life she's been searching for. Her reaction to his hug is completely visceral, emotional and unselfconscious and shows how she's changed over the course of the book—from when Wink gives her a hug just outside the shelter, which she can barely receive.
Q. At the end of the novel, Joon feels not grief but guilt over her relationship with her mother. That guilt "took on its own shape and smell and nestled in the pit of my body, and it would sleep and play and walk with me for decades to come." Would you say that this guilt is a dominant theme in your work, and will you continue to explore it in future writing?
Guilt is the policeman of emotions. If it arrests you, even for a second, you know you did something wrong, and it's just a matter of time before you have to deal with the consequences. It's a powerful emotion. And I think it's an Achilles' heel for many people, especially Koreans. (We try to avoid it as much as possible even as it surrounds us whole.) I also think others can make you feel guilty, but only if that seed of guilt already exists. Joon definitely feels guilt for having left behind a mother, and her mother feels guilt for having convinced her husband to move to the States. The father feels guilt, too, but he doesn't know for what exactly, so he simply throws money in the direction of his church, hoping enough of it will stick for God to notice. Whether guilt is a dominant theme in my book, I'm not sure. But it's definitely there, breathing between sentences.
Q. You're currently a lecturer at the University of Michigan, where you received your MFA and won the Hopwood Award for fiction. Will you continue to teach?
Yes. I got a tenure–track professorship to teach Fiction Writing at Columbia College in Chicago.
Q. What are you working on now?
A novel about a family and a linked short story collection about one crime.
Q. What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I want my book to remind readers that the homeless guy holding out his hand and the drug addict nodding off on the bus and the sex worker in the back seat of a car, and even the murderer locked up in prison were all children once. They too experienced things such as first day of school and school cafeteria fights and detention and beautiful long summers. They had parents, some had siblings, and some even had jobs and love and a future. The homeless guy, the prostitute, the addict, the murderer. These are our brothers, sons and daughters. And these are some of the characters that inhabit my book. I want my readers to love these characters, even if they seem unlovable.
- Beginning with helping to steal a Christmas tree, we see Joon participate in acts that aren’t fully legal throughout most of the book. Her actions clearly don’t fit within conventional morality, but is there an ethical code to the way she behaves on the street? Is Joon a principled person? Is Knowledge?
- Joon has many friendships and relationships over the course of the book—Knowledge and Benny, for instance—but in the end she is essentially alone. Do you think her friendships during her years on the street were true ones, or were they simply ones for survival?
- The book follows Joon over the course of several years and a variety of different experiences. From Joon’s first escapades with Knowledge to her last conversation with Mr. McCommon, how do you think Joon evolves over the course of the novel?
- As hard as Joon fights to move on with her life, to stay clean, to stay off the streets, do you feel like there’s hope for her to build a better life in the end?
- Given the state of Joon’s life at home, do you think her decision to leave home was justified? Was it courageous? Why or why not?
- Do you think people in the “straight world” from whom Joon seeks help—the employment officer, the nurse—treat her fairly or unfairly? Does reading this book change the way you would approach someone in Joon’s situation?
- At the close of the novel, are you convinced that Joon will make a different life for herself?
- What does Joon gain from living on the street? What does she lose?